So you think being a globe-trekking photographer would be a glamorous profession?
The Rev. Don Rutledge used his camera to spread God’s word and sew seeds of compassion in Christians worldwide.
This world-famous photographer from Middle Tennessee literally ate “worms, rats and monkeys” to get his shots.
But “hurting people” were his focus.
“You gotta go where the real hurting people are, to focus on the world’s poverty and problems,” the photographer noted.
For more than 30 years, The Rev. Don Rutledge’s camera ministry focused on people – all colors and creeds of hurting folks through all 50 U.S. states and more than 150 foreign countries.
The Murfreesboro native recently celebrated his 80th birthday confined to bed and rehabilitation. His brother, Clayton, and sister-in-law, Carolyn, still reside in Murfreesboro.
“Don suffered a severe stroke back in 2001, losing his short- and long-term memory, and he’s rehabbing presently from a recent fall as we celebrate his birthday tonight (Oct. 26),” described his wife Lucy from their home in Virginia. “But, he still smiles each time someone comes to visit…”
According to his peers, Rev. Rutledge’s photography left a wave of smiles and hope around the world, plus helped Christian writers sew seeds of compassion, resulting in millions of dollars of food, clothing and medicine being shipped to thousands in poverty-stricken countries, along with brave missionaries.
Born in 1930 the son of Murfreesboro residents (deceased) Loretta and Jesse Rutledge, it was an uncle returning from World War II in Europe who brought him a German-made camera. That opened the world and photography to young Don.
“When Don got that first camera, we instantly knew he had ‘the eye’ and ‘gift’ for photography,” noted Clayton, age 79. “We appreciate the daily prayers for him all around the world. He’s taken some magnificent pictures that’s won multiple awards nationally and internationally.”
When first “called by God to serve” young Rutledge envisioned a pulpit preaching ministry.
“I still have that first box camera from Germany,” Rutledge shared in an interview he gave me shortly before he retired from foreign mission photographic assignments in 1996. “I misunderstood as a teenager, when I thought God had called me to preach.”
During that initial snap-shot of teen years, “a wise Baptist minister back in hometown Murfreesboro, helped me focus on the fact I was to have a ministry of photography,” the photographer focused back across the decades.
And that ministry eventually exploded with flashbulbs and pictures taken across North America, Asia, Europe and Africa.
“For two generations, his elegant images and visual storytelling have shaped the way Southern Baptists see their world and much of what they know today about missions,” confirmed Bill Bangham as director of photography at the Baptist International Mission Board.
The gifted photographer described his “ministry” and how he sustained it.
“As little children, we have an active curiosity about life,” Rutledge described. “But as we grow older, many lose that intense interest, and go through life never noticing the colors, textures, sounds and people around us … we’re to be as children, excited about all God’s creations.”
He pictured “real life” and the “unusual” during his photographic journey.
“I photographed a rural pastor in America, who regularly went to the garbage dump to get all the whiskey bottles he could find,” Rutledge accounted. “After cleaning them, he placed Christian inspirational notes inside, sealed them and turned them loose to float in a nearby river…”
“One went all the way out to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf,” Rutledge noted. “After 15 years, one bottle turned up in Greece. Thus, that simple country preacher had a special ministry that impacted the world.”
Poverty is global and cultures vary, his pictures describe.
“I photographed an adult male in Brazil, who had grown up as a street child,” Rutledge added. “He returned to the streets as a missionary of God. There’s endless ways we can minister the love of Christ.”
But, his inter-continental cuisine varied.
“People are similar, but cultures are vastly different,” Rutledge shared. “That includes monkey food, which compares with nothing I ever put past my lips. I got to the point in foreign cultures, I’d not ask what we were eating until after the meal. You have to eat to do your mission.”
Sometimes, his diet included “rats” and “worms.”
He did what was necessary to get life-changing images.
“You’ve got to have nourishment, so sometimes, I had to adapt to diets in other cultures,” Rutledge reported. “I was blessed with having the physical stamina to endure the hardships of constant travel.”
His photography impacted the world.
“Through his lens, Don captures when souls come together,” American Christian writer Mike Creswell described. “People, consequently, are drawn to his photography, because they’re like Don has thrown open a window shade on a soul.”
As this is written in 2010, Rev. Rutledge “has no recall” of being an “ordained minister, except through the thousands of pictures he took of Christians being Christians,” shared his brother, Clayton. “I’m so proud of my brother. God took a country boy from Rutherford County, and used him as an internationally acclaimed photography minister of the Gospel.”